Alaska Legislature

Alaska legislators hear from school officials about the impacts of flat funding

JUNEAU — Alaska state legislators on Monday heard some of the looming budget impacts facing school administrators if they don’t receive a substantial funding boost this year, including increasing class sizes and laying teachers off.

The Legislature has been divided this year over how to address a substantial school funding shortfall. The bipartisan Senate majority has supported increasing the Base Student Allocation — the per-student funding formula. The Republican-led House majority has backed a contentious education package with provisions proposed by Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, but the measure has stalled without enough votes to pass.

In a packed joint hearing of the House and Senate education committees on Monday, lawmakers heard from superintendents and principals from across Alaska about the consequences of rising costs for districts from high inflation and flat funding.

In Fairbanks, the local school board on Friday unveiled its budget proposal for the next fiscal year to resolve a record $28-million deficit. The board is set to increase class sizes, eliminate almost 100 positions and to choose two more Fairbanks schools to close permanently.

[Anchorage School District proposes a budget with program cuts, bigger classes and nearly 100 fewer staff positions]

The bipartisan Senate majority last year passed a $175 million permanent increase to school funding, which was equivalent to a $680 boost to the $5,960 BSA. The Senate’s bill stalled in the House, but it would still be far short of the $1,413 BSA increase that education advocates say is needed after more than six years of virtually flat state funding.

After an almost two-hour hearing, Nikiski Republican Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a teacher for 15 years and advocate of a substantial permanent school funding boost, urged administrators to clearly explain to legislators what are the opportunities from more school funding, and what will happen if nothing changes.


“Say the quiet part out loud,” he said during Monday’s committee hearing. “Because you have a commissioner that says, ‘You don’t need any more money.’ And meanwhile, I have students emailing me saying, ‘Please save my music program.’ ‘I want to learn a foreign language at my school.’”

The $680 BSA-figure was picked last year because it matched the size of the Kenai Peninsula School District’s deficit. Superintendent Clayton Holland is again facing a $13 million projected deficit, but said a school funding boost of at least double that size is needed “to get us through the next three years.”

After the committee hearing, Holland said the deficit means 95 teaching positions are at risk. The school board is looking again to increase class sizes and to potentially shutter the district’s one swimming pool in Seward that Olympic gold medalist Lydia Jacoby used for training — along with ending other programs, he said.

Holland said the biggest impact of a substantial permanent school funding increase would be in keeping staff. He said that extra one-time school funding approved by the Legislature in recent years has come late in the budget cycle when teachers have already accepted other jobs.

“There’s no one left to hire. People are not coming to Alaska the way they used to,” Holland said.

In Anchorage, David Nogg, principal of Goldenview Middle School, said in a brief interview that he’s facing a different problem. Sixth-grade students in Anchorage are moving to middle schools, meaning the school’s enrollment is set to rise from around 700 students to more than 1,000 students.

“I’m gonna have to try to find anywhere from 15 to 20 new staff members,” Nogg said about the hiring challenges he’s facing during a nationwide teacher shortage.

Northwest Arctic Borough School District Superintendent Terri Walker said there have been substantial cost increases over the past year. Health care costs are up $4.5 million, and heating fuel costs are up 20%, she said, after positions like dedicated art teachers and PE teachers had already been cut.

The Kotzebue-based school district — where Dunleavy once worked as superintendent — is facing a $14-million deficit, Walker said, which is equivalent to 25% of the district’s expenditures.

Heather Heineken, chief financial officer for Yukon-Koyokuk School District, said strained finances are leaving administrators with tough choices for the Interior school district.

“I’m to point where I get to choose, do I heat my schools or do I pay my teachers?” Heineken said.

The impacts of rising costs have been seen across the state, said Lisa Parady, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators. The Kodiak Island Borough School District recently reported an extra $1 million in health insurance costs that have pushed the district further into deficit, she said.

“I think we’re all walking toward the cliff. Some are already there, but we’re all on the way,” said Roy Getchell, president of the Alaska Superintendents Association.

Getchell, who is also superintendent of the Haines Borough School District, said he would love to spend $100,000 to hire a dedicated reading intervention specialist to fulfill the requirements of a reading bill passed in 2022. But he said that would drain the district’s rainy day account.

“We have cut to the bone,” he said. “There is no room for error.”

• • •

Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire is a politics and general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Juneau. He previously reported from Juneau for Alaska's News Source. Contact him at